President Joe Biden has said Americans wearing masks as protection against the coronavirus ‘through the next year’ can save a significant number of lives as experts warned herd immunity may not be achieved until Thanksgiving.
Speaking during a visit to the National Institutes of Health complex on Thursday, Biden also gave updates about the U.S. vaccine supply.
‘You know that wearing this mask through the next year here can save lives, a significant number of lives,’ Biden said.
‘Masking is the easiest thing to do to save lives,’ he said. ‘We need everyone to mask-up. And by the way, I know it’s a pain in the neck, but it’s a patriotic responsibility, we’re in the middle of a war with this virus.’
Even though he was standing 10 feet away from Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Francis Collins, the president said he would continue to wear his mask.
Health officials have emphasised that even with effective vaccines, many of the current safety protocols – such as mask wearing and social distancing – will have to remain in force until the U.S. has a clear herd immunity against Covid-19.
There is currently no clear timeline as to when this can be achieved by, however the Biden administration officials told the Daily Beast on Thursday the US may not reach herd immunity and return to some semblance of normalcy until Thanksgiving at the current pace of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Dr Fauci, however, remains ‘cautiously optimistic’ that that day could come by fall if the general public starts getting vaccines by ‘April, May, June,’ but admitted he’s concerned that variants could stretch that timeline.
So far, 10.5 percent of the US population has received one or more doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
But if American officials were to follow Israel’s model of reopening, restaurants, gyms and stores when 90 percent of over-50s are vaccinated, these businesses could be operational as early as June, a DailyMail.com analysis suggests.
Biden admitted in a CBS News interview that it will be ‘very difficult to reach herd immunity much before the end of the summer.’
Members of Biden’s COVID response team are warning the White House that even that may be unrealistic, two senior officials told the Daily Beast.
Driving their less optimistic timelines for herd immunity are the potential fragility of the vaccine supply chain and the emergence of more infectious coronavirus variants, including two that may make vaccines less effective.
The coronavirus has killed 2.35 million people and turned normal life upside down for billions, but a few new worrying variants out of thousands have raised fears that vaccines will need to be tweaked, impeding progress towards herd immunity.
Sharon Peacock, director of the COVID-19 Genomics UK consortium, said vaccines were so far effective against the variants in the United Kingdom, but that mutations could potentially undermine the shots.
‘What’s concerning about this is that the 1.1.7 variant that we have had circulating for some weeks and months is beginning to mutate again and get new mutations which could affect the way that we handle the virus in terms of immunity and effectiveness of vaccines,’ Peacock told the BBC.
‘It’s concerning that the 1.1.7, which is more transmissible, which has swept the country, is now mutating to have this new mutation that could threaten vaccination.’
That new mutation, first identified in Bristol in southwest England, has been designated a ‘Variant of Concern’, by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group.
Biden also said on Thursday the coronavirus vaccination program he inherited from Donald Trump was in ‘much worse shape’ than he had expected, while urging patience and also announcing the government has bought 200 million more doses.
We’re not going to have everything fixed for a while, but we’re going to fix it,’ Biden said in remarks at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.
Biden is already well on pace to exceed his goal of 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days in office.
It’s an achievable goal that some consider inadequate but also a break from the off-base predictions of the Trump administration that undercut public confidence.
According to the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention, at least 26 million doses have been administered in Biden’s first three weeks in office.
‘That’s just the floor,’ Biden said of the 100 million target on Thursday as he toured the National Institutes of Health. ‘Our end goal is beating COVID-19.’
As concerns grow about potentially dangerous mutations in the virus, Biden aides view the vaccines less as a silver bullet and more as part of a complementary series of moves that, taken together, offer the prospect of real progress.
And for the U.S. to fully contain the problem, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, has warned that the pace of vaccinations must increase globally to curtail the mutants.
New virus cases, which had been at historic highs following the holiday season, have steadily declined over Biden’s early weeks in office but still remain worrisomely elevated, and lives are still being lost at a rate of about 21,000 per week.
Since he took office three weeks ago, Biden’s team has attacked the problem on multiple fronts.
They have unleashed billions of federal dollars to boost vaccinations and testing and developed a model to deploy more than 10,000 active-duty troops to join even more members of the National Guard to put shots into arms.
Mass vaccination sites, supported by federal troops, are set to open in California, Texas and New York in coming weeks.
‘They’re taking exactly the right approach,’ said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
‘The federal government is taking responsibility, instead of leaving everything to state and local governments and blaming others when things go wrong.’
For all of the activity, though, Biden knows that there are more grim statistics to come before Americans can return to any semblance of the ‘before days.’
More Americans have died from COVID-19 in the last year than died during combat in World War II, and some projections show the death toll could top that of the Civil War by the beginning of summer.
Wen urged the Biden administration to set more aggressive targets – a moon shot – to increase the pace of vaccinations to 3 million per day.
Much of the improvement in vaccination deliveries so far has been due to long-planned manufacturing ramp-ups, not the actions of the Biden team, aides acknowledge.
But with the prospect of a third vaccine receiving approval in coming weeks, they are trying to anticipate and eliminate the next set of bottlenecks, when capacity to deliver injections and demand for vaccines become limiting factors.
They have also moved to speed up the existing supply pipeline, with Biden announcing Thursday that the U.S. had secured contractual commitments from Moderna and Pfizer to deliver 600 million doses of the vaccine.
This is enough to inoculate 300 million Americans by the end of July, more than a month earlier than initially anticipated.
Beyond the focus on sheer numbers of shots delivered, there is the question of whose arms.
Biden’s team has taken an increased role in determining where each vial of vaccine goes, with an eye on ensuring that lower-income, rural and minority communities are covered, an implicit criticism of how some states have handled their rollouts.
New distributions to community health centers, announced Tuesday, and a 1 million weekly dose pharmacy program being rolled out this week will allow the White House to directly steer vaccines to underserved communities.
The ideas are not without their critics.
On a call with the White House on Tuesday, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson appealed to the administration to work through states rather than alternative distribution avenues, arguing they have excess demand they already can’t meet.
Other governors expressed concern that the federal program would upend their own plans to use those health centers to distribute vaccines.
‘While governors appreciate the federal partnership, it is important that any increase in manufacturing capacity for vaccines should go to the states for distribution and not duplicated through separate federal programs,’ Hutchinson told the AP.
The White House has defended them as pilot programs that can be scaled up to more sites with more doses if they prove to be effective.
In one key instance, the more hands-on federal response has meant the Biden White House has taken a step back.
Where the Trump White House got involved in editing CDC guidance for businesses, travel and schools – prompting complaints about meddling with science and leading some states to adopt their own more stringent protocols – the Biden administration is leaving it to career scientists to craft policies.
New, more prescriptive federal guidance on schools is expected as soon as Friday.
While Biden in December promised that ‘the majority of our schools can be open by the end of my first 100 days,’ his administration has since narrowed that goal to cover just K-8 schools, and even then, plans to count success as being open just a single day per week.
That’s drawing criticism from some Republicans who say Biden is setting the bar too low and for ignoring the lessons of schools that have remained open for most of the pandemic.
One early success of the Biden plan was born out of conversations with governors frustrated about constantly fluctuating vaccine supplies.
The lack of certainty led some states to slow the administration of first doses to ensure enough second shots would be available if deliveries dropped. Biden’s team pledged to give states three weeks notice on what’s coming their way.
‘We now see more vaccine on the horizon than we did a few weeks ago,’ Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, told the AP. ‘The more we learn about more vaccine the happier I am.’
Early reviews from the public of Biden’s response have been largely positive.
Two weeks into Biden’s administration, a Quinnipiac poll showed 61 percent of Americans approving of the way the president is handling the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly all Democrats and 33 percent of Republicans said they approve.
In a December Quinnipiac poll, 39 percent of Americans approved of the way President Donald Trump was handling the coronavirus pandemic. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, but just 3 percent of Democrats, approved.
Biden’s national strategy for the pandemic, released on his second day in office, provides the roadmap for the months ahead: more testing, clear guidance, and more and equitable vaccinations.
But the path to a ‘new normal’ is still unclear. The science on what will be necessary to achieve ‘herd immunity,’ particularly with the rise of new mutations, remains unresolved.
The Biden team is already actively working with pharmaceutical companies to prepare ‘booster’ shots for the variants, potentially annually, like flu vaccines. And they’re building the infrastructure to ramp up testing for the virus, given that testing could be part of life for years to come.
Biden’s call for Americans to wear a mask for his first 100 days will undoubtedly be extended, aides said. And his other goals are likely to be adjusted upward in coming months.
‘We’ll set the next set of goals as we make progress against the first set of goals,’ Zients said.